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9/11, COVID-19, and Recovery From Long-Term Trauma

October, 2020

Among the many national tragedies the United States has endured over the past quarter-century, two stand out for their sheer scale and the wide-reaching effects they have had on our society: the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and the COVID-19 crisis. Each of these events profoundly altered life for average Americans in ways both large and small, and many of the long-term effects of the COVID-19 crisis remain to be seen. Beyond the immediate pain and loss of losing a friend or family member, individuals whose lives have been touched by a shocking tragedy often suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for many years after the event. While 9/11 and the COVID-19 crisis are different tragedies, they have many of the same long-term effects on their survivors. For more information about 9/11-related PTSD, please contact our 9/11 victims lawyers.   

What Is PTSD and How Is It Caused? 

PTSD is a psychological condition that develops after a person experiences a terrifying event in which the individual has difficulty adjusting to and coping with normal life. Some of the most common of these types of events include combat exposure, sexual assault, childhood physical abuse, and extreme life-threatening events. The symptoms of PTSD begin manifesting in as little as one month after the event but sometimes do not manifest until years later. Symptoms are typically divided into four groups: 

  • Intrusive memories (e.g., distressing memories of the incident, flashbacks, nightmares, emotional distress triggered by something that reminds the person of the event)
  • Avoidance (e.g., trying to avoid thinking about the event or avoiding people or places that remind the sufferer of the event) 
  • Negative changes in mood (e.g., hopelessness, emotional numbness, detachment from family and friends, lack of interests in activities the sufferer once enjoyed, difficulty feeling positive emotions) 
  • Changes in physical and emotional reactions (e.g., being easily startled, being on guard for danger, trouble sleeping, aggressive behavior, overwhelming guilt or shame)

Many 9/11 survivors and first responders suffer PTSD as a result of their exposure to the trauma of that day, either from narrowly escaping death themselves or from witnessing the human toll in its aftermath. Such trauma can result in a prolonged state of “chronic threat response,” which causes its sufferers to live in a state of hyper-aroused survival mode. The WTC Health Registry reported that about 20% of its enrollees reported symptoms of PTSD five to six years after 9/11. At fifteen years out, it found in a sample of enrollees that 14.2% of repute workers and 15.3% of community members continued to experience PTSD and depression, indicating that these conditions can continue years after the danger posed by the event has passed. 9/11 survivors and first responders may be eligible for PTSD screening and treatment through the WTC Health Program; contact our 9/11 victims lawyers for more information. 

COVID-19-Related PTSD

It is still relatively early in the COVID-19 pandemic to determine the full impact it may have on our society, but evidence suggests that PTSD is increasingly becoming a concern for healthcare workers. During the height of the pandemic, many doctors and other healthcare workers reported that they were suffering from anxiety attacks, lack of sleep, and frequent irritability — all symptoms associated with PTSD. A Chinese study of 1,257 physicians found that 50% of respondents reported symptoms of depression, 44% reported symptoms of anxiety, and 34% reported insomnia. These findings are particularly alarming given that healthcare workers are already at an elevated risk of suffering these symptoms and have one of the highest rates of suicide. As the COVID-19 crisis continues, it is likely that many healthcare workers will suffer PTSD well into the future, just like their 9/11 first responder counterparts before them. 

9/11 and COVID-19: Different Recovery Challenges 

9/11 and the COVID-19 crisis are fundamentally different tragedies. The initial tragedy of 9/11 occurred quickly on a single day, whereas the COVID-19 crisis has unfolded in slow motion over the course of several months. On 9/11, it was clear that our country was under attack from foreign actors and that those actors were wholly to blame, whereas the blame for COVID-19 is subject to competing theories and could be spread among many different actors. But the most significant difference is one that poses a daunting problem for recovery; in the aftermath of 9/11, the public came together in an unprecedented showing of unity and solidarity, which proved to be immensely beneficial for survivors. COVID-19 survivors and healthcare workers suffering PTSD-like symptoms do not enjoy such support, as the nature of the virus requires isolation and engenders suspicion, finger-pointing, and fear of contagion. Many COVID-19 survivors report being treated as outcasts even after they recover due to the widespread fear of contracting the virus. 

In the absence of traditional support structures, individuals suffering from COVID-19-related PTSD or other symptoms of anxiety or depression can do one or more of the following: 

  • Identify things you can do and take action: Use this time to focus on accomplishing something that you’ve wanted to do. Whether that is learning a new language, writing a novel, or simply cleaning and organizing a closet, taking action can give you a sense of control. 
  • Focus on connecting from a distance rather than “social distancing”: Instead of dwelling on the physical absence of friends and family members, focus instead on finding new ways to connect. For example, identify individuals who are important to you and reach out to them daily on a rotating basis. 
  • Take advantage of virtual mental healthcare: Mental healthcare no longer requires face-to-face appointments. Many mental healthcare providers now offer virtual visits and there are several smartphone apps on the market that make talking to a healthcare professional as easy as texting. 

Contact Our 9/11 Victims Lawyers for More Information

If you suffer from 9/11-related PTSD or another mental health condition, you may be eligible for screening and treatment. Contact the 9/11 victims lawyers at Pitta & Baione by using our online contact form or by calling us at 844-982-2667.